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Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu: Travel Advice and Tour Recommendations

Many of my articles are about footpaths, journeys, and outdoor adventures around the globe.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

Make the Walk to Machu Picchu the Trip of a Lifetime

Recently, Jeremy and I returned from a ten-day trip to Peru, including four days hiking the Inca Trail and two days at the lost-and-found ruins of the "city" of Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains.

Please know that, if you're thinking of doing this trip, you can no longer hike the Inca Trail without a guide, so you'll need to book your trip through one of the many certified guiding companies and do so well in advance (as in, a year ahead of time). These guide services include local porters, who will carry some, most or all of your gear, set up camp for you, and cook your meals along the trek.

Here, you'll find my suggestions on which company to hike and tour with, what to bring, how to prepare for the Inca Trail, and how to make the most of your experience, as well as some general travel tips for a memorable and enjoyable Peruvian adventure.

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Our guide on the Inca Trail, Carlos, telling us about the first ruins we encountered on our hike.

Our guide on the Inca Trail, Carlos, telling us about the first ruins we encountered on our hike.

Hiring a Guide Service

It used to be that you could hike the Inca Trail on your own. But no more. The Peruvian government now requires all Inca Trail travelers (aside from the locals who live out there and use the footpath) to hike with a guide service. As far as I know, most or all of those guide services include porters, and (something I do know for sure) porters outnumber hikers on the trail.

Of course, we've done this trip just once (so far), so we've used just one guide service. But we were around several other groups while on our hike, and it appeared that all the other hiking customers were well taken care of by the various guide companies and were happy and having a good time. So I would imagine that the majority of the guide services out there do a good to great job.

I have to say, though: Adventure Life does an outstanding job! That's the company we went with, and we were very satisfied and then some. Our guide was extremely knowledgeable, friendly and attentive, both to our needs and enjoyment and to the welfare of the porters who took such good care of us.

The guide was also very focused on our safety. Not that the Inca Trail is a dangerous place when it comes to crime (although I've heard there used to be a significant problem with theft before guides were required, and one should still take care to keep personal belongings in the tent at night), but the weather and terrain can pose some physical risks if one isn't properly prepared or careful.

The porters, who carried all of the camping and cooking gear and the food, along with our personal clothing and supplies, worked extremely hard. With their superior conditioning and sure-footedness on the trail, they carried their heavy loads quickly and, so it seemed, quite easily. Though they left after we did each morning, they were soon to pass us on the trail. When we'd arrive at our lunch spot each day, the dining tent, table and chairs were already set up. Buckets of hot washing and rinsing water and soap were waiting for us, so we could clean up a bit before the meal, and the food was soon ready to be served. Same for dinner, when even our tent and sleeping pads were set up by the time we arrived at camp.

And the food was excellent. This wasn't rehydrated trail grub, mind you. This was gourmet! One of the porters was also the chef, and he and his assistant chef prepared hearty, delicious and visually attractive meals I never would have expected on a hiking trip. Needless to say, between multi-course breakfasts, lunches and dinners and the snacks provided for us to carry in our small packs each day on the trail, we were very well fed. We were also offered hot tea in the morning, before we got out of our tent, and "tea time" before dinner as well.

A Note About Tipping:

While not required, tipping the porters and guide at the end of the trip is customary if you feel you received good service. And it's very much appreciated. As far as we were told, a "usual" amount is in the range of US $2 - $6 per person per day, with the higher amount for the chef and guide. The guide is usually with you for an additional day for the final miles to Machu Picchu, the tour of the "city," and the trip by train and then bus back to Cuzco the fifth day. The porters leave you after lunch on the last (fourth) day of the hike, taking a different route down to Aquas Calientes, and bring your gear to your hotel.

Lunch on the Trail: Creamy soup and garlic bread followed by chicken pot pie, avocado and veggies.

Lunch on the Trail: Creamy soup and garlic bread followed by chicken pot pie, avocado and veggies.

Cuzco, Peru

Cuzco, Peru

Our Inca Trail / Machu Picchu Trip Itinerary

Yours may be the same or similar but there are a lot of options for before and after the hike and some for the hike itself.

Total Miles on the Inca Trail: 26

Tour length with Adventure Life: 5 days

  • Day 1: Arrival on our own in Lima with an overnight stay.
  • Day 2: Morning flight to Cuzco and transfer to hotel on our own
  • Day 3: Free day in Cuzco (We decided not to include additional touring with Adventure Life but instead explore on our own.) Evening meet-up with our Inca Trail / Machu Picchu guide at our hotel for a talk about what to expect and plans for the next day. Also, get duffel bags to transfer trail gear into, to be carried by porters.
  • Day 4: Pick-up by our guide and a driver at our hotel; ride to Sacred Valley and the start of the Inca Trail; begin hiking; overnight camping
  • Day 5: Hiking the Inca Trail up and over Dead Woman's Pass, approx. 5 miles (shortest daily miles but hardest day of hiking)
  • Day 6: Hiking the Inca Trail
  • Day 7: Hiking the Inca Trail; arrive at Machu Picchu after lunch; tour Machu Picchu; go to Aquas Calientes by bus and to hotel
  • Day 8: Return to Machu Picchu / optional Huayna Picchu hike; afternoon return to Aquas Calientes, then train to the Sacred Valley; drive the rest of the way back to Cuzco and return to our original hotel
  • Day 9: Morning in Cuzco, then fly back to Lima and then return to the U.S.
  • Day 10: Arrive back at home

See the specific tour we booked through Adventure Life and additional tour options.

Note: Most hotels in Cuzco will hold your luggage -- anything you're not taking with you on the Inca Trail -- in their storage area while you're away. And most of them don't charge for this. Plan to stay at the same hotel for at least one night when you return from Machu Picchu.

Note: Adventure Life limits the weight of gear each person can hand over to the porters to 15 pounds. They provided the duffel bags for transferring your personal gear and clothing into, so you don't have to bring an additional bag or backpack.

Inca Ruins on the Urubamba River in Sacred Valley. You'll see more than Machu Picchu!

Inca Ruins on the Urubamba River in Sacred Valley. You'll see more than Machu Picchu!

On our first day on the trail, we saw these impressive ruins, called Llactapata, along the Urubamba River. This photo was taken from the site of other Incan ruins above -- a lookout point, we were told, for the safety of those down below.

There are a number of other ruins, some small and some very extensive, along the way to Machu Picchu.

Hiking the Inca Trail

Hiking the Inca Trail

Preparing for the Hike

Feel Good on Your Trip Instead of Like Llama Poo

Our guide on the Inca Trail, under the rainbow:

The daily miles you'll hike on a 5-day Inca Trail / Machu Picchu trip (which is really four days of hiking with an extra day to explore Machu Picchu and possibly climb Huayna Picchu, which is that tall "bump" on the right you see in all the panoramic Machu Picchu pics) aren't all that long. Our longest day was just over 8 miles. It's the elevation of the trail and elevation gains (and losses) that are challenging and can prove problematic for some people. By "some people," I mean those who aren't reasonably fit and/or who aren't properly acclimated.

The most difficult day on our trip -- which is identical or at least very similar to all other 5-day Inca Trail trips -- was the day we climbed about 4,000 vertical feet, often along the River Llullucha, to Abra de Warmiwañiusca or "Dead Woman's Pass" and then descended a couple thousand vertical feet to our campsite. We hiked just 5.1 miles between breakfast and dinner that day with a long rest stop for lunch, so the hiking was what I'd call leisurely as far as pace and time on the trail. However, the elevation gain and loss (because going down is difficult in its own way) combined with the high elevation -- from just under 10,000 feet to nearly 14,000 feet at the pass and then down to about 12,000 feet to camp -- meant we were sucking wind a good bit of the time and taking micro-breaks every dozen steps or so as we neared the pass.

We did have some advantage, coming from a town at 7,000 feet and often hiking at even higher elevations close to home, but many of the Inca Trail hikers around us were from at or near sea level, and they were really feeling it at times. We saw one person (accompanied by a porter) who had to turn back due to altitude sickness. So I would suggest spending at least two or three days in the city of Cuzco, which is at more than 11,000 feet elevation, before beginning your hike. And, if you think you'd be better off, consider using Diamox, which you are supposed to begin taking a couple of days before you really need it.

Also, like I said, it's important to be "reasonably" fit for this hike. That doesn't mean you need to run marathons or get into mountaineering. Just be sure you can hike up to 8 miles a day and that you're aerobically in good condition. I would not recommend going from couch potato to Inca Trail in one fell swoop. If you know you need to shape up a bit for your own Inca Trail adventure, start working on it maybe six months in advance. Or at least three. Besides, with the limitations on the number of hikers allowed on the Inca Trail each day and the popularity of this trek, you'll need to book your trip well in advance anyway.

Learn More About Machu Picchu Before You Go

Most of the Inca Trail hike is on a path "paved" with rocks.

Most of the Inca Trail hike is on a path "paved" with rocks.

What to Bring on Your Inca Trail Hike

Porters will carry most of it, though there's a per-person weight limit.

All of the guide services I saw provided their clients with camping gear, as did ours. But there are some things in addition to your clothing, cameras, and toiletries that you'll need or at least want to consider bringing.

Speaking of clothing, regardless of when you hike the Inca Trail and what the "average" daytime and nighttime temperatures and weather conditions usually are, be prepared for anything from bright, warm sunshiny days to very cold nights, rain and even snow. After all, this is the high jungle in the Andes Mountains, and all mountains I've ever met are unpredictable.

On our trip, we experienced all seasons and types of weather. One day -- make that one minute -- we were in short-sleeved shirts and shorts and, the next, we were wearing multiple layers on top and bottom along with hats and gloves. The sun beat down on us and so did the rain. Looking back up at Dead Woman's Pass the next morning from our campsite, we were glad we'd gone over when we did -- in the drizzly, intermittent rain -- because, by the following day, the pass was covered in snow.

I would recommend that you bring synthetic clothing on your hike, because synthetics "breathe" better than cotton and dry more quickly. Consider bringing convertible pants that can become shorts with a few quick unzips. I'd also recommend thermal underwear, both a pair to hike in if necessary and a pair for camp, along with a fleece or wool layer and a waterproof rain jacket and rain pants.

Either hiking boots or trail runners are okay, but be sure they're well broken in yet still have good tread.

Also, I strongly recommend at least one and perhaps a pair of hiking poles. They do help on the ascents, particularly for giving an extra push when going up big stone steps, but they most definitely help on the long downhills, not only providing extra stability but also for saving your knees and ankles. (Find out about different types of hiking poles, the many benefits to using them and proper techniques in Trekking Poles: Multi-Use Gear.)

While you can buy trekking poles in Cuzco or at an outdoor store in the Sacred Valley (where you'll have to use cash because they don't take credit cards) on your way to the start of the Inca Trail, you may very well be buying "knock-offs" as we did (because I left our poles at home in Arizona), which can be of lower quality. One of the telescoping poles we bought sometimes wouldn't lock into place or would collapse if we put a lot of weight on it. The hand strap on the other pole broke on the second day.

Aside from clothing and poles, here are some other things to think about when it comes to packing for hiking....

  • A heavy-duty plastic bag: Before we left on our hike, we were each given a duffel bag from Adventure Life to transfer up to 15 pounds of personal clothing and gear into, to be carried by the porters. What they did not have, however, was something to protect the duffel bags if it should rain. I did see some porters cover their huge loads with a tarp as they hiked, but you can't be sure of that or that the tarp will keep everything dry.
  • A pack cover: Dry season or not, bring a pack cover for your own daypack or backpack. Or bring a large rain poncho that will cover both you and your pack. This is a nice option in warmer weather, because you'll get the air flow under the rain poncho.
  • Anti-diarrhea medication, Ibuprofin, and any other personal meds you might need
  • Extra camera battery and camera memory cards, because you can't recharge or download anything while you're on the trail
  • Toilet paper: Our porters carried plenty of it for camp, and we were always welcome to take some for our daypack, but you might want to have a little of your own, just in case.
  • Sleeping bag: Adventure Life doesn't provide personal sleeping bags, just the inflatable pads, the tents, the tent footprints and extra tarps. You can rent sleeping bags for about $10/day, but we chose to bring our own from home. Check with your guide company to see what they do and don't provide.
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellant
  • Sunglasses
  • A wide-brimmed hat or ballcap
  • A knit hat and gloves (or at least glove liners)
  • Backcountry water filter: Now, our guide service and all the others we saw provide potable water along the trail. They boil it, which is the surest method of purification ... if done correctly. And there was plenty of water along the trail and at the campsites and lunch spots for them to obtain water each day and evening. It was only on the first half of the first day that we needed to bring our own bottled water. However, we did wish we'd had our Katadyn backpacking water filter with us in Cusco. We would have saved ourselves some money (and a little hassle actually) if we could have refilled our bottles by purifying water from the sink. (Don't drink the tap water in Peru. It's not considered potable.) For more on purifying water in the backcountry (or even the front country in places where tap water isn't safe to drink), see Backcountry Water Purification.
  • Daypack for your water bottles, snacks, hat, gloves, camera, jacket and whatever else you want to keep with you while hiking each day.
  • (2) Water bottles (non-disposable): Porters will boil (purify) water for you to refill your bottles or bag each day. Ours offered purified water for refilling in the morning before we left camp, at the lunch stop and in the evening.

Note: There was a weight limit of 15 pounds of gear per person. That is, 15 pounds you could hand over to the porters. Adventure Life provided us with individual duffel bags to transfer our gear into.

Arriving at Machu Picchu, Peru through Inti Punku, otherwise known as "The Sun Gate."

Arriving at Machu Picchu, Peru through Inti Punku, otherwise known as "The Sun Gate."

See the "face" of the Inca? Huayna Picchu, the mountain on the right, forms the nose, with the ridge off its right side being the forehead. To left of the Huayna Picchu you see the mouth and then the chin.

Walls of Machu Picchu

Walls of Machu Picchu

Exploring Machu Picchu

It's my personal, humble opinion that there's nothing like seeing Machu Picchu for the first time after hiking to it via the Inca Trail.

You get closer and closer as you marvel at the jaw-dropping, incredibly gorgeous countryside you're walking through and other picturesque Incan ruins along the way. You go up, up, up, then down, down, down, appreciating the huge amount of work that went into shaping and placing all those rocks to form the footpath -- my gosh, those steps! -- and then, near the end of the hike, you go up a bit again. You know you're coming to Inti Punku -- the Sun Gate -- and maybe even hear a little choir singing in your head. And then, after getting your picture taken at the Inti Punku sign, you go up and over and ... WOW! There it is. All those postcard-like photos you've seen just don't quite compare to the real thing, displayed before you, down below.

Yep, you can travel by train and then up the road and its many switchbacks by bus from the town of Aqua Calientes. For many, that's the only way they can make the trip to Machu Picchu. Not everyone can or wants to hike 26 miles on the Inca Trail to get there. But if you CAN, I say: DO! It's awesome.

When you get to Machu Picchu:

Our guide on the Inca Trail was also our personal guide for Machu Picchu. The same was true for the other groups around us. Those coming into the monument by bus can hire guides once they get there for a tour. You can also do a self-guided audio tour.

But don't be surprised if there's a crowd. Before noon, there most likely will be. The numbers may thin out some in the afternoon. But with 5,000 people PER DAY allowed into the site, it can and often does get very busy. Still, Machu Picchu is a sizable place, so we didn't feel too crowded, other than at the entrance and exit. We just had to wait sometimes to get a specific photo, until other visitors moved on.

And be aware of the rules inside the park. They include....

  • No food allowed inside the monument
  • No disposable containers or bottles
  • Pack out any trash
  • No backpacks larger than 20 liters
  • Do not climb on the walls
  • No walking sticks (hiking poles) permitted (If you have them with you because you just came from the Inca Trail, you will need to stow them on your pack once you get down to the monument.)
  • No smoking
  • No writing on walls or floors
  • Do not disturb flora or fauna.
  • Follow only routes designated by arrows.

If you have anything with you that's not permitted inside the monument, there is free secure storage at the entrance. There are rangers posted around the monument, keeping an eye on visitors.

Llamas aren't visitors at Machu Picchu. A number of these fuzzy spitters live there and help keep the grass nice and trim.

Llamas aren't visitors at Machu Picchu. A number of these fuzzy spitters live there and help keep the grass nice and trim.

Cooked guinea pig in Cuzco, Peru. Um ... Ew!

Cooked guinea pig in Cuzco, Peru. Um ... Ew!

Travel Tips for Getting To and From Peru

And some information about traveling within the country

Here are some suggestions for airline travel and your stay in the country in general:

  • Bring snacks for domestic flights within the U.S.. We didn't get even a teeny bag of peanuts or pretzels on an American Airlines flight five hours long. We got a nice snack, though, on the LAN flight from Lima, Peru, to Cuzco, which was just over an hour.
  • Bring at least one copy of your passport with you and leave another copy with a friend or family member at home. Keep the copy you travel with in a different place than the actual passport (ie. one in your suitcase and one in a secure travel belt where your money is).
  • We had to show our passports many times other than at the airport, but we could sometimes just use our copies. We had to put down our passport number on receipts when using a credit card. We had to show our passports when checking into hotels. We also had to show them at two checkpoints on the Inca Trail.
  • Be sure not to lose your Immigration Card (just a little piece of paper, actually) that you'll get at Customs when entering Peru. You'll need it when you leave.
  • Don't drink tap water in Peru. Buy bottled water and other bottled drinks.
  • Make sure the food you eat (other than what's prepared for you on the Inca Trail, which I feel you can trust) is well cooked and that any fresh fruit and vegetables are washed with potable water and, better yet, peeled. I would even say don't eat raw fruits and veggies other than on the trail. I did get food poisoning from pan-fried trout I ate in a nice restaurant in Cuzco before we started our Inca Trail hike. Well-cooked food we ate at a festival, though (including chicken, NOT the fried guinea pigs pictured above), was fine. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to avoiding getting an upset tummy, but just pay attention and be as careful as you can. Hiking with leftover food poisoning is not recommended.
  • In general, the sewage systems in Peru can't handle toilet paper. Expect to have to deposit used paper in receptacles next to the toilets. And in some public restrooms, you have to get your TP from a dispenser before entering a stall.
  • There are flush toilets at some locations along the Inca Trail, including at some lunch and camping spots, but these are basically holes in the floor. And you'll need to bring toilet paper in with you.
  • While guides on the Inca Trail speak English, don't expect that other Peruvians will. None of our porters spoke English (though our guide was there to interpret for us.) Many of the locals we met in Cuzco and Aquas Calientes, including merchants, waiters and waitresses, and hotel staff also did not speak much if any English. Try to learn some basic Spanish before you go, particularly related to ordering food, using a taxi, and buying merchandise.
  • When boarding your international flight out of Peru, expect that your carry-on luggage will be checked yet again at the gate, not just at security. We were not allowed to bring drinks on the plane from Lima back to the U.S. (Miami), even those bought inside the secure zone.
  • You can usually use American currency (bills, not coins) in Peru. (I'm not sure about currency from other countries.) But be sure to get crisp, new, untorn bills from the bank. Oftentimes, Peruvians will not accept any bills with tears or lots of wrinkles. They get a lower exchange rate for them.
  • If possible, arrange for your hotel/s to send a shuttle to pick you up at the airport. Those rides are usually less--sometimes much less--than you'll spend if you just hire a taxi when you arrive. In Lima, our ride to (and, the next morning, from) our hotel was $8. In Cuzco, we were charged just 10 soles (about US $5) for a ride to the airport. Drivers will hold up a sign with your name as you leave baggage claim. But confirm your pickup by email before you arrive. I didn't do that with the hotel in Cuzco, and they were a no-show.
  • Regarding Cuzco hotels, if you can spend a bit "more" (meaning, between about US $85 to $120 per night) and get a hotel that's close to the main square -- the "tourist area" -- then I would recommend doing so. We stayed in a hotel that was $50/night, which was very clean, but it was on a drab street that was a bit of a walk from where you'll want to spend most of your time in Cuzco. It was also noisy, with paper-thin walls, and the "continental breakfast" was less than bare bones. Also, the hotel had no courtyard or nice rooftop area to sit and relax as other hotels did that were in the more "quaint" areas with the cobblestone streets, closer to the square and shops.

I Recommend Bringing a Travel Belt

Keep your money, credit cards, passport, airline tickets and other small valuables hidden, close to you and safe with one one of these comfortable pouches.

This one comes in both black and rose (shown).

Hiking in the high jungle on the Inca Trail.

Hiking in the high jungle on the Inca Trail.

Hotels We Stayed at in Peru: Lima, Cusco, Aquas Calientes

  • Pacha Hotel Museo - Cusco
    Located at Av. De la Cultura # 220, which is about a 15-minute walk from the main square of Cusco. We paid US $54/night including fees and a very basic breakfast each morning. There's a public computer available in the lobby. The hotel is clean, and
  • Inti Inn -- Aquas Calientes
    This hotel was included in our package with Adventure Life. We stayed here one night after our Inca Trail hike. The hotel was very comfortable and clean, and it included an extensive breakfast buffet. There are mixed reviews of this hotel on Trip Ad

© 2012 Deb Kingsbury